The Giants announced on Tuesday that they will be retiring number 25 for Barry Bonds. They’ve held the number out of circulation since he retired (or forced out of the league, depending on your view of things) after the 2007 season, but will formalize the whole thing now, after over a decade in a sort of limbo.
This makes Bonds the third confirmed player to see their number retired this coming season, after the Tigers announced that they’d be honoring both Alan Trammell and Jack Morris follow the Veterans Committee electing both of those players into the Hall of Fame.* Like Bonds, both had seen their numbers unofficially removed from circulation following their retirements (although Trammell’s #3 found its way back into use a few times in the meantime).
*I expect we’ll see a few more announcements on this front soon. The Indians still haven’t announced anything about Jim Thome’s #25 since his induction was announced. Ditto the Angels and Vladimir Guerrero, who will be the first player with an Angels logo on his plaque, but his case is maybe more complicated given that his #27 has since been reissued to Mike Trout. We’ll see how that plays out. Also, I wouldn’t be shocked to see one other announcement; there always seems to be a wild card or two in the mix.**
**Edit, February 12: This year's wild card is Roy Halladay
All of these points factor in to a couple of my strong opinions on baseball teams retiring uniform numbers; I guess writing a couple hundred pages on the topic will give you some of those. Namely, I think teams are making some errors in their judgment of what makes someone worthy of getting a number retired, and this is manifesting in a couple of notable ways that could best be summarized as “teams are being a little too cautious in their decisions”.
The first, and most obvious, issue is that too many teams are waiting on the Hall of Fame as some sort of external validation for their choices of who to honor. It’s not immediately obvious, but you can tell that’s what going on if you poke around just a bit. Just look at the three honorees we’ve already seen announced. It makes sense in a certain way, as you can tie all the celebrations and ceremonies together neatly, then…but on the other hand, you could also just have two separate ceremonies. I’m pretty sure, for example, no one in San Diego or Atlanta will be too irritated at having two special days for Trevor Hoffman or Chipper Jones over the past several years rather than just one.
So good on the Giants for finally deciding to stop paying attention to the BBWAA and just doing their own thing.* Even as someone who thinks there’s still some value in the Hall of Fame and that it’s worth trying to fix rather than just abandon, you shouldn't give it more credit than it’s actually merited. Even if you think your star has a clear case, the voters miss on pretty strong candidates all the time. Just look at how long the Tigers sat around waiting for them to get around to Trammell. Heck, they’re still waiting for Lou Whitaker to get his due. Don’t bother waiting on them to catch up to you; in fact, you may even help their Hall case (see, for instance, the Mariners’ larger strategy of campaigning for Edgar Martinez).
*As well as a few others recently, like the Mariners (Edgar Martinez), Red Sox (David Ortiz), White Sox (Mark Buehrle), and Yankees (Derek Jeter) last year.
On a similar note, I kind of wonder if teams don’t overuse taking numbers out of circulation without fully retiring them. If the team intends to eventually return the number into use, that’s fine, but it seems to be the case that most of the time, that isn’t the end goal. Look at how long the Tigers held out hope on Morris and Trammell. Even the Giants made it a decade without a number that almost every team had in-use last year.
But it’s not just using “out of circulation” like some sort of limbo for possible Hall of Famers; some teams do it for other reasons. Take the Orioles, who have kept three numbers out of use for players not really up for Hall consideration: #7 for Cal Ripken Sr., #44 for Elrod Hendricks, and #46 for Mike Flanagan. Each had major roles for the team that extended well beyond their playing days, and meant a lot to the organization. Consequently, each has seen their number unused since their deaths (which is over a decade for Hendricks, and nearly two decades for Ripken).
So…why not go all the way and officially retire them? Clearly, they meant a lot, or you wouldn’t be doing this. Is the idea to just quietly return them into use in another two or three decades? That seems a little silly. Formalize it. Hang their numbers somewhere everyone can see so their work with the team is remembered and immortalized.
I think that if my idea of what retired numbers should be could be condensed to a short statement, it would be “numbers should be retired for people crucial to retelling the story of the team, and error on the side of too many rather than too few”. When I first moved to Houston and attended an Astros game, I was a little surprised at how many numbers they’ve retired, but I’ve come around to it. It was interesting learning about some of the names I had never heard before. In fact, I would say the Astros (along with maybe the White Sox) are probably the team I would most use as reference for what I think retired numbers should be.*
*Although, to that end, it’s disappointing they haven’t retired numbers for Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt yet. Maybe next year, when they hit the Hall of Fame ballot?
To that end, as an Orioles fan, I would absolutely be fine with the Orioles retiring all three of those numbers. I think Ripken Sr., Hendricks, and Flanagan were all key figures in the Orioles history, and exposing all they did for the team to a wider audience would be great. That’s probably also why I’m in favor of erring on the side of too many numbers rather than too few; what’s the downside, that teams may need to use three digit numbers a century or two down the road? That definitely seems like a trade off that’s more than worth it.